When does too much detail mean much less quality?

A common request I hear from a number of customers that are looking to get a better handle on where their resources are spending their time is to be able to track time at a very low level of detail.

While in principle this is a worthy objective, in practice it is a recipe for disaster.

Most of us have a hard time remembering how much time we spent on breakfast in a given day, let alone how much time we would have spent on a specific activity a few days back.  The majority of time entry systems will get used by staff at the end of the week or the beginning of the following week so the fogginess of memory will defeat the quest for accurate actuals.

Very few people (especially in IS departments) are so organized as to be able to accurately record the time they have spent on each of the hundreds of activities that they might do in one day.  At best, they will be conservative, but at worst they will try to second guess management and log time against the most valuable (based on their perception) activity.

The size of a timesheet also is inversely related to the quality of the captured data – the more “buckets” you offer someone to log time against, the less likely they will pick the bucket that most accurately describes what they were actually doing.

Bringing this all together, here are a few guiding principles if you are introducing time tracking:

1. Start out by capturing time at the highest level possible – once staff are used to doing that consistently and with reasonable quality, start to introduce more detail only if there is a defined, tangible business reason for doing so.

2. Try to limit the number of activities that any resource might log time against in a given week to ten or less.

3. Start out by keeping the minimum increment of time that is tracked at 1/4 of a day.  Once you are sure that people are logging time accurately, you can ask for more accuracy if this is necessary.

4. Over-communicate what the captured time data will (and won’t) be used for, and share the reports, charts and analysis that you derive from the data.

5. Insist that everyone (yes, that includes the CIO) will log time.  Otherwise, you are just creating Animal Farm.

Categories: Facilitating Organization Change, Process Peeves | Tags: | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “When does too much detail mean much less quality?

  1. Good article and your experience speaks volumes. I believe that time tracking must be 3 things: Accurate, Complete and Timely. Unless you log your activity while you do it, it is almost impossible to get accurate information; Unless you log all the time, then you have holes in your information; If the timesheets are late, then their value diminshes and the costs associated with using that late information increase greatly.

    The issue of Big Brother is always present, whether you politely ask people to fill in a paper timesheet or whether you implement automated systems to help with the logging. Everyone will have an issue, but if you work in a project management or billable hour enviornment then you have no choice but live with the timesheet and the oversight of your activities by management.

    The real challenge with time tracking systems is that it requires a cultural / habit change. Getting people to change their habits is painful for all involved and requires a lot of work and committment, and I haven’t seen any research to indicate that sticks work any better or worse than carrots. Its just a log, hard process that takes real committment.


  2. kbondale

    Thanks for the feedback, David!

    The change management aspects of rolling out time entry are the most challenging part of the initiative, but when done right, the resulting data could truly be the Holy Grail!


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